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The breakfast hype

Be it eggs or a hearty bowl of oatmeal, morning fare has long been branded the most important meal. Now some scientists are saying: Not so.

September 18, 2006|Andreas von Bubnoff | Special to The Times

SHELLEY RATTET of Framingham, Mass., has lost about 25 pounds these past few months. It was the first time the 55-year-old clinical psychologist had lost weight in 10 years.

One of the changes she made: Making sure that she ate a good breakfast.

Mark Mattson, a neuroscientist at the National Institute on Aging, disdains the morning repast. He hasn't eaten breakfast in 20 years, ever since he started running early in the mornings.

He says he's skinny and healthy and never felt better.

Whatever you do, don't skip breakfast.

Breakfast: It's the most important meal of the day.

Such pronouncements carry almost the aura of nutritional religion: carved in stone, not to be questioned. But a few nutritionists and scientists are questioning this conventional wisdom.

They're not challenging the practice of sending children off to school with some oat bran or eggs in their belly. They acknowledge the many studies reporting that children who eat breakfast get more of the nutrients they need and pay more attention in class.

They do say, however, that the case for breakfast's benefits is far from airtight -- especially for adults, many of whom, if anything, could stand skipping a meal.

"For adults, I think the evidence is mixed," says Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University who hasn't eaten breakfast in years because she is just not hungry in the morning.

"I am well aware that everyone says breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but I am not convinced," Nestle wrote in her book, "What to Eat." (She later received many e-mails from readers telling her that they were relieved to hear it.) "What you eat -- and how much -- matters more to your health than when you eat."

A few scientists go further than this. They say it may be more healthful for adults to skip breakfast, as long as they eat carefully the rest of the day.

"No clear evidence shows that the skipping of breakfast or lunch (or both) is unhealthy, and animal data suggest quite the opposite," wrote Mattson, possibly the ultimate anti-breakfast iconoclast, last year in the medical journal the Lancet. Advice to eat smaller and more frequent meals, he wrote, "is given despite the lack of clear scientific evidence to justify it."

Mattson admits that he hasn't proven his case yet. His studies are still preliminary.

But already, his findings have attracted a cadre of followers who started to skip breakfast once they heard of his results. Meanwhile, a diet plan that involves breakfast skipping -- the Warrior Diet -- is attracting followers in the U.S. and worldwide.

These aren't the only ones forgoing the morning repast, of course. Surveys show that about one-third of all people in the U.S. and Europe skip breakfast, primarily because they say they don't have enough time in the morning or because they want to lose weight -- and what better way to do so than miss a meal?

Most nutritionists and health experts maintain that this is unwise. Breakfast skippers, they say, risk skimping on important nutrients. They also tend to binge later on, actually increasing their risk of gaining weight.

"There isn't any downside to eating a healthy breakfast," says registered dietitian Joan Salge Blake, a clinical assistant professor at Boston University who specializes in weight management. "Currently, Americans, on average, fall short on their daily servings of whole grains, fruits and dairy foods. Eating breakfast is an excellent way to add these foods to the diet."

Breaking the 'fast'

Wherever and whenever the concept was first invented, breakfast today is enjoyed by cultures around the world: coffee with French bread and butter and jam in Algeria; soup and rice porridge in Thailand and Vietnam; stuffed steamed buns and soy milk in northern China; a heart-stopping plate of bacon, eggs, sausages and fried bread in the British Isles.

Breakfast cereals are relatively modern additions, debuting after the invention of "granula" by Dr. James Jackson in 1863, and cornflakes by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg in 1902.

It makes sense that the body would want to refuel after many hours of fasting, says Susan Bowerman, a registered dietitian and assistant director at the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition. In the morning, blood glucose level is generally low. "Since the brain's primary source of fuel is glucose," Bowerman says, "it seems logical that fueling up in the morning ... would make sense."

Refueling is not the only benefit, however. "Many of the foods that people consume at breakfast are things they may not consume the rest of the day," such as dairy products, fruits and whole grains, Bowerman says.

Foods generally served at breakfast are good sources of calcium (from milk, yogurt and cheese), fibers (from whole fruits, whole wheat bread and cereal), iron (from fortified breakfast cereals or whole grain breads), and vitamin C or A (from orange juice and fortified milk, respectively).

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